Academic journal article The Journal of Mind and Behavior

Does Functionalism Offer an Adequate Account of Cognitive Psychology?

Academic journal article The Journal of Mind and Behavior

Does Functionalism Offer an Adequate Account of Cognitive Psychology?

Article excerpt

Confidence in logical positivism and operationism waned in both philosophy and psychology during the 1960s. At about the same time, psychology experienced the cognitive revolution, which reinstated mental states and processes as central to theory building and explanation. As Levin (2013) points out in her review, cognitive psychologists turned to the functionalist theory of mind (Putnam, 1975) as a philosophical underpinning for all aspects of cognition. This interchange produced psycho-functionalism, as described by Levin:

A second strain of functionalism, psycho-functionalism, derives primarily from reflection upon the goals and methodology of "cognitive" psychological theories. In contrast to the behaviorists' insistence that the laws of psychology appeal only to behavioral dispositions, cognitive psychologists argue that the best empirical theories of behavior take it [behavior] to be the result of a complex of mental states and processes, introduced and individuated in terms of the roles they play inproducing the behavior to be explained.... All versions of functionalism, however, can be regarded as characterizing mental states in terms of their roles in some psychological theory or other, (p.7)

Hence, as Levin sees it, functionalism in all its aspects is intertwined with cognitive psychology at both the philosophical and psychological levels.

The purpose of this essay is as follows: (a) to describe the philosophical roots of functionalism; (b) to present an overview of functionalism as it currently operates in cognitive psychology; (c) to review objections to functionalism; and (d) to examine an alternative account, the Aristotelian-Thomistic (A-T) model, recently proposed in cognitive psychology itself (Spalding and Gagné, 2013; Spalding, Stedman, Hancock, and Gagné, 2014) and within the philosophy of mind (Feser, 2006, 2014; Madden, 2013).

Analytic Philosophy and Functionalism

Analytic philosophy, spawned in Britain as a reaction to idealism, dominates English-speaking philosophy to the present time. As Preston (2007) demonstrates in his review of the history of analytic philosophy, the movement was initiated by Russell and Moore, refined as logical atomism by Russell and Wittgenstein (see Wittgenstein, 1922), elaborated by the Vienna Circle as logical positivism (Ayers, 1952), seriously questioned by Quine (1951), and later reinvented by Wittgenstein (1953). Preston characterizes contemporary analytic philosophy, the home of the philosophy of mind, as eclectic and interested in limited metaphysical problems, as still grounded in language analysis and semantics, and as interested in the kinds of thought experiments often used by philosophers of mind. Although current philosophers of mind are spilt along property dualism (Chalmers, 1996, 2010; Nagel, 1974) and materialist lines (Churchland, 1986; Lewis, 1966), all agree that cognitive processes, from sensation and memory through all of the higher order phenomena of thinking, reasoning, categorization, planning, etc., can be explained by the doctrine of functionalism. In fact, Chalmers (1996), though a property dualist, asserted this about functionalist cognitive models:

Cognitive models are well suited to explaining psychological aspects of consciousness. There is no vast metaphysical problem in the idea that a physical system should be able to introspect its internal states, or that it should be able to deal rationally with information from its environment, or that it should be able to focus its attention first in one place and then in the next. It is clear enough that an appropriate functional account should be able to explain these abilities, even if discovering the correct account takes decades or centuries, (p. 31)

In her review, Levin (2013) points out that functionalism has antecedents (Ryle, 1949; Turing, 1950; Wittgenstein, 1953) but emerged as a definitive philosophical position in the last 35 years of the twentieth century. …

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